"Ten minutes 'til the ball drops, find someone now, folks!" A bartender yelled out. Through the festive music, a number of people cheered over the buzz of conversation.
"Last chance to order something spicy, love," the same bartender told Annie. Annie had been sitting on her stool for a solid hour and a half, sipping virgin versions of this and that. Honestly, this was the first time she missed alcohol in months and even now the feeling was fleeting.
"Make me something with orange juice…", Annie offered.
"No alcohol?", Gayla asked. Gayla was Annie's favorite bartender at her most frequented bar. She should definitely tell Gayla that sometime.
"No alcohol," they smiled kindly. The bartender shook their head but smiled back playfully. She knew the Annie's story. Besides, a customer was a customer and Annie tipped well. Annie's friends had dispersed in all different directions. Dancing, karaoke, a dark corner with someone special. As for Annie, she just wanted to exist for a bit, to take in the live music and the misty lights, enjoy sobriety and being in her own skin . Next to Annie, an empty stool beckoned a stranger to approach her. New people still made her nervous but the company wasn't unwelcome.
"What causes someone to turn down alcohol on New Year's, if you don't mind me asking?" a man asked. In the dim lights, she could only say for certain that he was a tall, dark-eyed, and had a kind smile.
Annie smiled and blushed. The man was handsome and she couldn't help but enjoy the attention. She hadn't squeezed into her pair of too small jeans and flashy sequin top without some hope of practicing her flirting. The night hadn't started pleasantly. Would she get a quick kiss to ring in the New Year?
"My friend's and me…" she said, leaning close, "a lot of us gave up alcohol. I'm a year sober."
The man raised both eyebrows, maybe shocked by the honesty. He offered his hand, then retracted and stuck out an elbow.
"Congratulations! Maybe we should avoid handshakes with it being so crowded, right?"
Thank you COVID for creating easy small talk. "Thank you," Annie said. She tapped her elbow to his with a snicker. Now to be casual. She reached for the orange drink Gayla had left for her and leaned her chin on her hand-
Panic. Just momentary. She could feel the slight stubble under her chin and her heart dropped to her stomach.
"No one is going to want you when your beard grows back and you smell like a dude." The hateful voice from earlier that evening echoed in her mind, long gone but still refusing to leave completely.
"Am I bothering you?" Handsome Man asked, cocking his head in that flirty way people do.
"No, not at all," Annie insisted. She took her hand from her face and let a deep breath roll through her. The heck with it, she thought. "You should know that I'm not looking for a midnight kiss… and I'm trans."
There was that moment of uncertainty, that familiar mental anguish, the long list of immediate doubt-filled, internal questions: Should I have said that? Did I do the right thing? Am I going to regret this?
Handsome Man sat up straighter. He looked taken back but not put off entirely. He nodded and smiled, said, "That's cool. And no kisses, no problem." He laughed and to Annie's secret delight, it wasn't the laugh of sheer social horror - just surprise, she thought. Surprise was okay.
"I…you look... I mean…", he stuttered. Bartender Gayla, always a friend and supporter, intervened briefly.
"Just tell the lady she looks good, you won't go wrong with a sincere compliment." They then winked, handed the man his beverage, and wondered off with a grin.
"You DO look good." He said. "And I'm Jack, by the way. I forgot to start with that".
They enjoyed a chuckle together and had a pleasant conversation. Jack was a construction worker, friendly and single, and eager to talk about his work, Annie's job in accounting, their pets… normal things. Annie felt that she could have opened up to this sweet man, with some time; not in a bar on New Year's Eve with minutes left before the first social marker of the year, but under different circumstances.
"I missed the big dinner they had here earlier, actually," she commented, when he asked about her plans for the evening. She ventured to vent just a little. "I had to meet up with a… an old acquaintance. To find some closure."
"Did it go well?" Handsome Man Jack asked with sincerity, but surely without expectation of great detail.
"It went … as well as it could." Annie said. She was kind of lying, of course, but this guy didn't need the emotional tale of Annie's encounter with her ex-girlfriend. She was three weeks single after three years of mutual, low grade abuse. Low grade, she thought. Mistreatment is mistreatment, don't rationalize it, she reminded herself. Jack was kind enough to change the conversation to a funny story about some childhood girlfriend. Annie looked back on her evening while smiling and offering the appropriate chuckles.
The evening's earlier brief encounter - heck, the whole relationship - felt distant, though it'd been less than a few hours. Annie hadn't known who to expect when she knocked on the door of her old apartment. This wasn't the first break up Jenna and she had endured, but Annie knew it had to be the last. There was no going back to the toxic situation and most of her friends, both in Alcoholic's Anonymous and her usual circle, insisted she not go back in person at all. Even her therapist suggested maybe a phone call instead, fearing that Annie would be roped back into the chaos that was Jenna and her 'love'. There was an apology to be had, however, and Annie knocked on the apartment door with a sense of duty. She reminded herself that the relationship was over, the apology still needs to be made, and nothing has to come of it. She just had to remember those three things. Maybe Jenna, who Annie hadn't talked to since walking out, would be her sweet, caring, manipulative self, apologetic yet insulting, somehow getting her way without fail. She hoped not, it would be so much harder than… well, whatever else happened. Maybe Jenna would slam the door in her face, or not open - no, Annie couldn't hope for that, she needed this. Making amends was important to her, even if the apology went poorly. In fact, she doubted Jenna would care at all. Don't expect anything, Jenna recited. The relationship is over but an apology needs to be made, even if nothing comes of it.
"Oh, it's you." Jenna had said. "Why are you knocking, you live … that's right. You left your key." So it was to be the passive-aggressive, sarcastic Jenna today. Good. That made this easier. "I figured you'd be back but not weeks after not saying a word. You want me to think you're dead? You should have…"
"I'm not back. I'm just here… I'm here… to talk," Annie immediately teared up. Oh, how stupid! She couldn't hold it in, just this once? The relationship is over, she told herself, but the apology still needs to be made. Don't expect anything else, it just needs to be made, even if she felt foolish for crying.
"Oh my god, you're already… whatever, just come in," Jenna made a mocking bowing gesture. "Are you still on about how horrible I am? It's your AA buddies, isn't it, getting you right with yourself and all that crap." Jenna shut the door behind Annie just loud enough to be jarring, then stomped across the room. Jenna was in her jogging pants and old t shirt, wasn't she going out tonight? Maybe she wasn't doing well - it didn't matter. "What do you want? You better not think I'm going to keep paying for your little trans stuff. I'm done helping you."
"No, no," Annie wiped a premature tear away. "I need an apology…"
"A what? From me?" Jena reeled. "Oh, honey…"
She had misspoken, that was not what she meant but it was too late.
"You think you had it so bad, why, because I'm honest with you? Because you think I 'manipulate' and put you down? I paid for your hormone pills, I accepted you when you decided you didn't like your body - who's going to want you now? Huh? No one is going to want you when your beard grows back and you smell like a dude. You know your facial hair is already showing and I bet your Adam's apple will be next. You were already not very attractive, Andrew, but I stuck with you - "
"It's Annie!" She hadn't meant to yell but that name still carried baggage and Jenna knew it. "And I said it wrong. I want to apologize, you don't have to apologize…"
"Well that's good! I don't have anything to apologize for, Annie. You know you had it so easy with me, Annie, your friends might call speaking loudly and being honest 'abuse', do they know that you hit me, Annie? That you pushed me around? I never touched you, but YOU…"
"I'm SORRY." Annie interjected loudly and in a hurry. She had to get out of there, but not until this was done. " I'm apologizing, I'm sorry for putting hands on you when I was angry, I'm sorry for acting like that. I'm here to say I was wrong, and no matter what the situation, hurting you was wrong." Annie let the tears fall then. Don't expect anything, she reminded herself, the relationship is over, and you did it, you apologized.
Jenna crossed her arms and rolled her eyes. "Whatever, I mean, you probably couldn't help it because of the hormone therapy. I just think if we have any chance of getting back together you should remember who was really…"
"No. Hormone therapy is no excuse, that's a misconception and you know it, just like the alcohol wasn't an excuse. I made those mistakes - " Annie took a deep breath, hoping for a mutual apology she wasn't supposed to hope for and would certainly never get. "And that's… that. That's all. I don't want to get back together, and what I did was wrong, period."
Jenna was silent for a moment, then stepped closer. This was the danger zone, Annie knew. The sweet talking, manipulative Jenna. Not this time.
"How are you going to pay for your… transition, stuff. No one but me is going to see you as anything but a man, looking like this. You can't just put on pretty clothes and cheap looking make-up and…"
"I don't need your money to be who I know I am, no matter what my body looks like, I want…" Annie stopped. She'd made her apology and there was no reason to open up and hand Jenna emotional ammunition. "I hope you find a happier, healthier relationship. That's all."
Jenna made some generic snide comment then, as Annie marched out of the apartment. She couldn't remember those last remarks now. The words still hurt, sitting at the bar with a stranger and his funny stories. Somehow, the words didn't have the same power, however, the same feeling of doom and dread and horrible truths.
Annie excused herself from sweet, handsome Jack for the restroom. She stood at the door for just a second - entering the women's bathroom still made her very aware of the dangers of being "out". She breathed deep and entered. One of her companions, not a particularly close friend but a nice person, met her eyes in the mirror over the sink. For a moment, they were just two woman washing their hands, a pleasant normalcy that Annie appreciated. This was all getting better, in so many small ways, she thought.
"Is that hot guy sitting next to you going to get a midnight kiss?" the friend asked playfully. Annie chuckled and reached between them for a paper towel.
"No, definitely not." She answered.
"There's still a minute to find someone," the girl said. Then as though she suddenly remembered who she was talking to and, hopefully more importantly the long day Annie had endured, "but no rush! There's always next year!"
"There's really only one person I'd like to give a kiss tonight," Annie mused. The sounds of the final countdown drew the other girl's attention, and out the door she went, beckoning Annie to follow. "I'm right behind you, go ahead."
But the other girl left the bathroom alone. Annie stood behind, staring at the mirror for those ten long seconds..
The countdown hit 0, the bar exploded outside the bathroom doors. Annie looked into her own eyes, at the imperfect nose, the make-up she'd done completely herself for one of the first times - the slight stubble on her cheeks and chin, poorly concealed by her make-up in such direct light. She kissed the tips of her fingers, then pressed them to the lips of her reflection. Really, it was her first kiss as Annie.
"Happy New Year, Annie." She whispered. "You look great. You're going to have the best year."